For this sober group of gray-suited central bankers and finance ministers staggering under a decade of slow or no growth, the message at the World Bank spring meeting was $2.5 billion clear: If they want an economic boost, look to the girls.
The World Bank committed on Wednesday to invest $2.5 billion over five years in education projects to enroll and keep adolescent girls in school, and the argument was unsurprisingly economic.
“You don’t have to be an economist here at the World Bank to know that unleashing the full economic potential of half the population can drive the growth and prosperity of nations,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said.
“Investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do for them as individuals. It’s also the smart thing to do for economies,” he said.
Aid groups and governments estimate 62 million girls globally do not attend school. Of those, 16 million elementary school age girls never start school. Half of the unschooled girls are adolescents.
A World Bank study found that a girl gains an 18% increase in future earning power with every year of secondary school education. US AID calculates if India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, the country’s gross domestic product would rise by $5.5 billion. In Latin America, the World Bank recorded a 30% decrease in the poverty rate when women’s participation in the labor market grew 15%, Kim said.
If a country increases the share of women who have completed secondary school by 1%, per capita income grows by 0.3%, Kim said.
“Imagine the potential growth that countries can unleash if we can level the playing field, and if every adolescent girl can complete a full 12 years of education,” Kim said.
Getting girls into school in some countries will require both money and a change in attitudes and priorities. Access to school can be limited by cultural barriers, location of schools and something as simple as having proper bathrooms, Kim said. In Nigeria, Kim said, a World Bank Group project in a rural area increased high school completion rates for girls five-fold after the construction of separate latrines for the women and cash transfers for parents who kept their girls in school, he said.
And for some girls, attending school is fraught with danger. The move by the World Bank comes two years after the insurgent, Islamist group Boko Haram, which forbids educations for girls, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria. The girls remain missing.
Kim announced the funding as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, launched by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama last year through US AID. The project began as a public engagement campaign to get girls into primary school. The initiative has now expanded to adolescent girls. The World Bank money will go largely to projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which have the largest number of girls not in school. The organization seeks to get all adolescent girls enrolled in school by 2030.
The first lady, speaking Wednesday in the World Bank’s atrium amid the spring meeting gathering, urged world leaders and key policymakers to make gender parity in education a priority.
“When we in invest in girls’ education, when we embrace women in the workforce, it benefits all of us,” she said. “This investment can only have impact if leaders like you push girls’ education to the top of the agenda.”
The lack of parity in education for girls should make countries question their values, she said.
“Why do we still too often value girls for their bodies instead of their minds?” she said.
Gender parity, she said, is not just about resources. “It’s about whether we truly believe that girls are worth educating in the first place,” she said.